ODI Summit 2018: Reflections
A day of the important stuff in London (UK)
I went to the Open Data Institute (ODI) Summit on 20 November. It was the fifth summit, and the first time that I’d been. I wanted to go because I really like and respect the work that the ODI do, and also a day of hearing about data is relevant to my job¹.
I knew there would be data-famous people there, plus actual famous people (like Sir Tim Berners-Lee), and a bunch of great folks that I know from the internet who are famous to me. The venue (Kings Place) was impressive, the visual design was superb, everything ran smoothly, and the food was delicious.
I was a bit nervous because I’m not very good at conventional networking (starting conversations with strangers), or with crowds, or with big open spaces with balconies and lots of glass, and I felt some impostor syndrome, but hey I managed just fine. No big deal.
At one point during the day I found myself really intimidated by the quality of the panel discussions. I felt like my working life was a long way away from what I was hearing on the various stages. Then I realised that if I’d been sat there at any point thinking “I could do better than this” the ODI team wouldn’t have done a good job. It’s supposed to be an impressive, thought-provoking stretch, and it was. I didn’t agree with everything that I heard either which I thought was a good sign.
What I wanted to get out of the day
There was variety in the agenda, and with many simultaneous activities and speakers it wasn’t possible to do everything. I decided that I was most interested in ethics, diversity, and how we communicate about data.
The ethics in data and technology theme is something I’ve become particularly interested in over the past year or so. I have some scope to put it into practice in my own work, but really it’s more a broad area of personal and professional development for me.
The diversity theme is something that is important to me and that I need to take responsibility for in work. It would be easy for me to stay in my privileged comfort zone. I need to seek out opportunities to learn, turn up, and listen.
The communicating about data theme is something I struggle with on a regular basis. It frustrates me that data is often seen as being synonymous with technology. I believe that getting an understanding of technology is becoming increasingly difficult, as what is actually happening ‘under the bonnet’ is moving further and further away from the user.
It’s different with data, because its nature and its shape stays pretty close to us. Technology is moving away from most of society at the speed of commercially-driven innovation, but it isn’t the case with data (in my opinion).
It shouldn’t be so hard to have engaging, human conversations about data.
The panel on ‘Building trust in data and tech’ addressed important issues around regulation; corporate responsibility; the impacts of technology and how to involve society in conversations about it; and how to rebuild broken trust in companies that increasingly influence our daily lives. There was an implied difference of opinion with where the panel members worked (or had worked), but it was very civil and nobody threw chairs.
I think the line on regulation and control from Andrew Eland about “the brakes on the car were designed to help you go faster” resonated with lots of the audience. I appreciated Catherine Miller’s contributions the most — I liked the phrase “technology is creating facts on the ground”, and Catherine provided clear, straight challenge to others on the panel (and by extension technology companies).
The session on ‘Operationalising ethics in innovative organisations’ asked different questions on similar themes, at a more organisational level. This session made me think about how I might put some data ethics work into practice, and had helpful points on whether there are established ethical norms in your company² and that ‘data ethics’ likely means different things to different people.
There were huge questions, like whether it is possible to create ethical services on the global internet when there are no international ethical norms. There was a dismissal of the notion of a ‘Chief Data Ethics Officer’, as ethics should be everybody’s responsibility. I also heard the need to ensure a diversity of viewpoints in ethical conversations. I particularly liked the contributions from Alix Dunn (real talk) and Mo Johnson (big thinking).
I went to the ‘Data and diversity’ session. I particularly liked the perspectives from engineering from Georgia Thompson and Mark McBride-Wright, which I hadn’t heard or considered before. There were important points about the truth behind the stats — maybe progress isn’t being made as quickly as it seems. I got some quotes:
Targets aren’t quotas
What are you going to do about it?
Be prepared to learn about what you are not
I’d wish for sessions as good as this with such excellent representation on the panel at every event.
How we communicate about data
I recall somebody in the audience saying how refreshing it was for the ODI to include art as part of its programme. I really enjoyed Mr Gee’s poetry at the beginning and end of the day. Not as a distraction, or entertainment — this was communication about data that immediately resonated with me on a different level to (say) reading a text book, or seeing a visualisation.
I went to the session on ‘Data stories’, which was fascinating. This was the point in the day when I felt the discussion was most about data, without technology explicitly in the mix. This session was all about telling stories with data — sometimes complex, many-to-many, dynamic narratives as with Simon Johnson’s work. I would have liked this session to have gone on for longer. I would also liked to have asked whether we have a responsibility to tell the truth in our data stories — it was sort of touched on in the Q&A, but not quite. This would have looped back to the earlier ‘trust’ session for me.
It’s a hunch, but if there’s a part of data that remains abstract for people – defying rational explanation – then efforts to build understanding through art (expressing the inexpressible) might be better placed than using the definitive, scientific language of technology.
I don’t think there’s enough art in work. Or in society, for that matter.
I picked up a theme of iterative, sustained development throughout, applied to each of my chosen topics of interest. There was a recognition that these are difficult issues, but that we need to start having the necessary broad, diverse conversations and stick at them if we are going to build a better position as a society.
One of reflections in the closing keynote from Fran Perrin and Azeem Azhar was about looking back in 30 or 40 years time. That gave a sense of the scale of the challenges, but it was a positive note. I found the day overall to be positive, as well as being realistic and open.
I went to other things and learned some other stuff, and had some good chats³, but these were my thoughts about what I wanted to get out of the event.
Many thanks to the ODI team and particularly the curator Anna Scott for an excellent day.
¹ I am the Head of Data and Search at the UK Parliament. I’m responsible for developing and implementing our data strategy, and I work with a team of analysts, engineers, and architects to continuously improve our institutions’ work with data — both for the public and for internal users
² I wouldn’t even begin to know how to answer that
³ I also carried a flask of tea around with me all day planning to make a video but the opportunity didn’t present itself